With one of the strongest economies in Asia over the past 50 years, Malaysia has grown in importance in the region. With roots as a British colonial territory, Malaysia today is home to an ethnically-diverse population of about 30 million people, including a sizable Chinese minority.  Join Active Minds as we explore the history of Malaysia, its current role in the region and the world, as well as the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March, 2014.

Key Lecture Points

  • Malaysia, slightly larger than New Mexico, is strategically located along the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea.  Rich in natural resources, it is ethnically diverse and a predominately Muslim country.
  • Seeking a trade route connecting India and the Far East, the Portuguese captured the port of Malacca in 1511.  Later the Dutch and then the British came to control over the Malaya territory with its natural resources (tin and rubber) and its strategic location. Britain maintained control over Malaya until WWII when it fell to Japanese occupation.
  • At the end of WWII, Britain returned to Malaya and gradually prepared to exit from colonial control, granting Malaya independence in 1957.  In 1963, the Federation of Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore (all former British Colonies) federated as Malaysia in 1963.  Less than two years later, Singapore was expelled from the federation because of ethnic conflicts between the Malays and Chinese.
  • Malaya (and later Malaysia) has been governed by a ruling coalition, now called Barisan Nasional (BN) since 1957.  The most recent elections in 2013 were marked with allegations of electoral fraud.  Since the election, the ruling coalition has cracked down on the opposition, led by Anwar Ibrahim.  He has been on trial on and off again for years on sodomy charges, described by Human Rights Watch as politically motivated persecution.  On March 7, 2014 he was convicted of those charges and again sentenced to jail.
  • On March 8, 2014 Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 mysteriously dropped off the tracking radar and still has not been found or a cause determined for its disappearance.  Some (but not all) suggest a connection between the conviction of Anwar Ibrahim and the loss of MH370.
  • As part of China’s growing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region, Beijing has claimed a large area in the South China Sea including islands and shoals claimed by other nations in the region, including Malaysia.
  • One of President Obama’s major foreign policy priorities is his “Pivot to Asia” strategy, recognizing the growing importance of the Asia-Pacific region to US interests.  The cornerstone of his strategy is the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement.  This treaty would open markets for US goods and would include Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the US and Vietnam—40% of the global market.  The agreement faces opposition at home and abroad.

Exploration Questions

  • How has Malaysia’s geographic location influenced its history?
  • Describe the territorial disputes going on in the South China Sea.  What countries are involved?   Why is there such interest in these disputed islands?
  • What is the Pivot to Asia?   Why is this strategy important to President Obama?

Reflective Questions

  • What are your thoughts on the disappearance of MH370? What do you think happened to the plane?
  • Have you ever visited Malaysia?  Singapore?   What impressed you?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Gross, Max L.  A Muslim Archipelago: Islam and Politics in Southeast Asia.  Createspace, 2013. 296 pages.   The author assesses the role and current place of Islam in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.
    Click here to order
  • Tan, Tai Yong.  Creating “Greater Malaysia:” Decolonization and the Politics of Merger.  Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008.  248 pages.  Analyses the political forces that led to the formation of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963 and the causes of the expulsion of Singapore in 1965.
    Click here to order